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'It's just different': MSU professors prepare classes for partially online fall semester

July 27, 2020
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Practically overnight, professors at Michigan State and across the country had to shift their classes entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the fall 2020 semester approaches, MSU will continue some online instruction, but this time professors have had more time to prepare.

“We kind of were rushed to put everything online,” integrative studies in arts and humanities, or IAH, professor Nicola Imbracsio said. “Now it's far more intentional and really trying to help faculty figure out how best to translate whatever courses they have to an actual online class, as opposed to just now I have to teach, you know, I'm just forced to finish it out online.”

President Samuel L. Stanley Jr.’s announcement to open campus in the fall comes with some regulations in the classroom.

Faculty were asked to move 75% of their classes at least partially online. Within that percentage, 50% of courses will be online and a quarter will be hybrids.

When deciding which of their labs should remain in-person, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy Saul Beceiro Novo had to consider the groups of students he was teaching.

In an integrative studies physical, or ISP, course, the students aren’t STEM majors, and they are less likely to build on the material learned in the class later in their college career.

“That decision came because we only have so much space, and so we had to take 50% of the labs online,” Beceiro Novo said. “Now what was taught in one classroom has to be taught in two different classrooms, right? So we decided the non majors can do it online so that the majors can come to the classroom and actually use the equipment that they're going to need in their future.”

Beceiro Novo’s typically large ISP lectures are going to be held on Zoom, and his course content has already been made more accessible on D2L.

With online labs, Beceiro Novo is taking three different approaches: videos, equipment at home, and online simulations.

“I record videos with the equipment in the lab, and I share those with the students and then I have the students get the data from the video,” he said. “So, I just take the measurements, and they can read every single thing that's happening, right? I don't tell them what's happening. They just see someone doing it, and then they work in groups.”

MSU provided Beceiro Novo with two assistants to help him record labs and demonstrations during the summer that he can share with his students. 

He also is going to encourage students to use items at home for some of the topics they cover.

Additionally, he has been able to find online simulation software that his students can use when they can’t recreate them at home.

Computer science professor Richard Enbody teaches the entry programming course CSE 231, which can be taken online, or as a hybrid with online instruction and a weekly lab with a teaching assistant.

The sudden switch to online was simple for Enbody’s programming course. While the majority of the material was already online in the spring, he also had to figure out ways to help students without their scheduled lab or help rooms on campus. He often met with students struggling in the class and caught a new glimpse into their lives.

Imbracsio created a survey for faculty to get a better idea of how they are responding to the transition to more online classes and received over 750 responses. 

“Around 80% of faculty so far have said that the thing that works best for now or the thing that was new for them was being able to connect with students in a way they haven't had in the past,” Imbracsio said.

Some professors who typically have 200-300 students in their lectures are able to have a face-to-face connection with students they couldn’t have prior to the online shift.

Enbody said in the fall his class will be entirely online, and students will still have labs with teaching assistants over Zoom.

Beceiro Novo can also attest to Imbracsio’s survey as he said he had a great increase in students coming to his office hours once he began holding them virtually.

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According to an academic preparation letter for faculty, the Registrar's Office has given fall classes four codes, which are subject to change throughout the summer. 

•‘In person’ courses will be in person, likely in larger classrooms than normal to allow physical distancing. 

•‘Hybrid’ courses will have online lectures with in-person components for recitations or labs. 

•‘Online-synchronous’ courses will have students and professors partaking in the online course at a scheduled day and time, similar to how some classes were held in the spring.

•‘Online-asynchronous’ courses do not require any attendance and allow students to do work for the class on their own time while meeting the deadlines.

In order to help faculty prepare for the fall semester, MSU has created four-week virtual workshops for professors in each department. 

Imbracsio has been part of planning workshops on what it means to go back to teaching after the coronavirus and the country’s ongoing conversations around racism. She says a big part of some workshops are to help faculty with technology they will need to conduct their classes. 

“I can tell you that these soirees, these workshops, they've had to offer more because more and more faculty are asking," she said. “And it’s not something they’re compensated for, it’s voluntary.”

When instruction “returns to normal” professors can make takeaways from the time they spent online.

“When they moved online due to coronavirus, they had a realization that you know, ‘Hey, maybe I don't need to have super stringent deadlines,’” Imbracsio said. “So, I think going online will help some faculty also realize not only technological tools but also things with their own teaching that they can take with them into their face-to-face classes when we finally get there.”

Beceiro Novo said his labs would return to in-person, but there could be the possibility of holding his larger lectures online in the future.

As for Enbody, throughout the transition he was able to develop a more efficient method of taking computer programming exams, which include testing students’ proficiency in programming softwares. 

“Necessity is the mother of invention," Enbody said. "And we've actually come up with actually a better way of doing this. ... I'm never going back to pencil and paper exams because this is an improvement for the students.”

Having to move her classes online has given Imbracsio an opportunity to look at her seemingly fine courses and make helpful changes that she would not have made otherwise. She thinks moving online is really encouraging a lot of faculty to think about their classes.

She added that among the responses from some students who say they are not getting a quality education online, MSU is not raising tuition. Also, despite their financial losses, faculty and staff are getting pay cuts. 

“Faculty are doing their best to deliver education to students under some pretty difficult circumstances — and we understand that students are also being put in sub-optimal situations,” Imbracsio said in an email. “But we’re all trying to do our best with what we have.”

Imbracsio feels that students coming into the fall should have an open mind on approaching these classes and stay involved.

“I can understand since perhaps hearing that, you know, it's not the same because ... it isn't the same delivery. It's not the same as a face-to-face class,” Imbracsio said. “But it doesn't necessarily mean it's better or worse. It's just different.”

Editor's Note: This article is part of our Summer Mail Home issue. View the full digital issue here.


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